Scouting the Trade Market: Patrick Corbin

(Brian Davidson/Getty Images)
(Brian Davidson/Getty Images)

The Yankees have been linked to the Diamondbacks and Patrick Corbin several times over the last couple of days, and it has become clear that adding a starting pitcher is their top priority. Mike wrote about a bit about Corbin as a potential trade target last off-season, but another season of data post-Tommy John Surgery has shifted the calculus a bit.

Current Performance

Corbin was viewed as something of a buy low candidate this time last year, as his first full season removed from elbow surgery had less than inspiring results, and the Diamondbacks appeared to be going nowhere fast. And now, twelve months later, Corbin had a healthy, above-average season, and the Diamondbacks made it to the NLDS. There’s no indication that he isn’t available, though. Let’s take a look as these last two years:

capture

Keeping in mind that Chase Field is a big-time hitter’s park, Corbin’s 2017 was impressive on several levels. His 4.03 ERA translated into a 119 ERA+, which was tied for the 10th best in the National League, and in the top-30 in all of baseball. Corbin improved across the board in 2017, with only his groundball rate taking a step back – and, even then, it ranked 8th among all qualified starting pitchers. His strikeout and walk rates were above-average, as well. When you put that all together, he was basically the same pitcher that he was before 2016’s ugly campaign.

There were plenty of improvements that don’t show-up in traditional stats, too. His hard contact rate dropped from 38.5% to 31.6%, and his exit velocity went from 89.3 MPH to 87.3 MPH. While there are still some questions about the usability of this data regarding performance, it boils down to both rates going from comfortably below-average to right around league-average.

So, in short, Corbin became harder to hit in 2017, and, when he was hit, it was with far less authority. That’s a good precursor for success.

Current Stuff

Corbin is a four-pitch pitcher, working with a low-90s four-seamer, a low-90s sinker, a low-to-mid 80s change-up, and a low-80s slider. Take a look:

brooksbaseball-chart

There is something of a warning sign within this graphic, and that’s the noticeable dip in velocity over the coure of 2017. Corbin’s velocity ticked up throughout 2016, and he started 2017 in the same range; by the time the season was over, though, he had lost about 2.5 MPH from his heater. That’s not ideal, and it did appear to have an impact on his success. Corbin ran a 9.00 ERA in May, which stands out more than most anything – but he posted his worst walk rate (by far) in September, alongside big drops in strikeouts (7.0 K/9) and grounders (47.1%).

Could that have been a result of Corbin tiring? Absolutely. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014, missing the entire season, tossed 102 IP between rehab and the majors in 2015, and then 155.2 IP in 2016. The 189.2 IP he threw this year represented a big increase in workload, and it was the most innings that he had thrown since 2013 – so may’ve been straight-up gassed. It’s nevertheless something that any interested team will be thinking about.

Corbin throws all four of his pitches to both righties and lefties, with his slider being his primary weapon against right-handed hitters. He threw it about a third of the time last year, an increase of nearly 11 percentage points against 2016 – and righties hit just .179 with a .309 SLG against it. They basically tee-off against all of his other pitches, though, and that has been an issue throughout his career.

Injury History

As I said above, Corbin had Tommy John surgery in 2014, which kept him out for all of that season and much of 2015. And that’s something that you can’t ignore. However, he has otherwise been healthy throughout his professional career, which dates back to 2009.

Contract Status

Corbin is entering his final year of arbitration, which makes him a rental. MLB Trade Rumors projects an $8.3 MM salary for 2018.

What Would it Take?

The most comparable case of a deal for a starting pitcher with one year of arbitration eligibility remaining is probably Jeff Samardzija. He was coming off an All-Star appearance in his age-29 season, having posted a 2.99 ERA (125 ERA+) in 219.2 IP. The then-30-year-old was dealt by the A’s (alongside Michael Ynoa) to the White Sox for Marcus Semien, Josh Phegley, Chris Bassitt, and middling prospect Rangel Ravelo prior to the 2015 season.

Semien was the prize of the deal, as a former top-100 prospect (ranked 91 by BA heading into 2014) that had scuffled a bit in his first extended look in the majors. Phegley was viewed as a back-up catcher, Bassitt a back of the rotation starter or reliever, and Ravelo as a potential platoon player. It was viewed as a solid but unspectacular return, for what it’s worth.

The buzz around Samardzija then was almost certainly more than it is for Corbin now, but the difference in their production wasn’t all that different. A similar package from the Yankees is hard to cobble together, but it might start with a couple of guys in the back half of their top-10 (Thairo Estrada and Miguel Andujar?) and Luis Cessa. My trade proposal sucks.

Does He Make Sense for the Yankees?

Maybe. He will undoubtedly cost less than Michael Fulmer, Gerrit Cole, and Chris Archer, given his impending free agency, but he was as good or better than all three my some measures last year. If the Yankees are looking to bolster their odds of winning this year without dipping into their top-level prospects, Corbin may be the best of the bunch. And I am not too concerned about the drop in velocity (particularly when you see the warts on the other players they’ve expressed interest in).

That being said, if the Yankees are playing for the short and medium term – which they seem to be – then Corbin doesn’t make much sense, unless they’re holding their bullets for another move…

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Neil Walker

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The Yankees have (for the best of reasons) unexpectedly found themselves in need of a second baseman and/or a third baseman. That is, unless you expect them to go into 2018 with a rookie at one of those positions, and Ronald Torreyes at the other; suffice it to say that I don’t. Barring a trade for Manny Machado, the free agent market may be the best place to go for a short-term and palatable solution. And Neil Walker – who the Yankees allegedly backed out of a deal for at the trade deadline – is probably the best option.

Offensive Performance

Walker has rather quietly put together a solid eight-year career. A switch-hitter, he owns a career .272/.341/.437 line (115 wRC+) in over four-thousand plate appearances, and he hasn’t posted a wRC+ below 106 since his 40 PA cup of coffee in 2009. He’s been rather consistent, too, with his wRC+ checking in between 106 and 130 in each of his full seasons. And the last two years have been no exception:

screen-shot-2017-12-12-at-10-01-19-pm

The discrepancy in his power and walk rate do stick out a little bit, but those represent the largest swings in his career. Moreover, neither is the negative sort of outlier that suggests a decline, or anything of that nature – and his .174 ISO in 2017 was still a tick above his career ISO, so it isn’t as if his power is disappearing.

Walker’s performance against LHP does stick out like a sore thumb, and does appear to make a liar out of me, regarding his consistency. However, 2016 is the outlier here, as he has always been much better against righties. He has a 121 wRC+ against righties for his career, as compared to a 91 against southpaws. Walker might be best-suited as a platoon option, and that’s essentially how he has been used over the last several seasons.

It’s as a LHH that Walker hits for most of his power, and he does so to the pull side. Take a look as his spray chart as a LHH for the last two seasons:

screen-shot-2017-12-12-at-10-19-31-pm

Just under 45% of his batted balls go to right or right center, but he’s still tough to shift against as he is more than capable of driving pitches back up the middle. As per FanGraphs, he’s only see the shift in 414 PA for his career, and he has a career .323 against it (including .285 last year). Both points suggest that his bat would play well in Yankee Stadium … and he does have 2 HR and a 1.031 OPS in 21 PA there.

Defensive Performance

Walker is a second baseman by trade, and the metrics are all over the place. He has been a tick below-average there overall, with career rates of -2 DRS/150 and -3.7 UZR/150. He hasn’t been consistent on that side of the ball, though:

  • 2015: -2 DRS, -8.8 UZR/150
  • 2016: 0 DRS, 11.1 UZR/150
  • 2017: -5 DRS, -2.1 UZR/150

Over the last three years he has been anywhere between awful and awesome, and the two go-to defensive metrics disagree with each other within each season. The reality is likely that he is a tick below-average but competent at the keystone.

He is somewhat versatile, as well, having logged 86.1 innings at first and 34.1 innings at third this year. It was his first time playing a position other than second since 2010, but he played both positions in the minors. Walker actually came up as a third baseman, and has played 444 games at the hot corner in his professional career. The sample sizes at the big league level are small and spread out over several years, so it’s tough to take much away from them (they’re not good, though). Whether or not he could be counted on to play either position for an extended period of time is an open-ended question.

Injury History

The Yankees backed out of the deal for Walker due to his slow recovery from a partially torn hamstring, which kept him out for about six weeks over the summer. That wasn’t his first brush with the injury bug, either, as he missed the last month of 2016 with a back injury, which required surgery. Walker has missed time in almost every season with nagging injuries, but those are the two big baseball-related ones. This is probably the biggest knock against him as a free agent, as he’s 32 and has missed a month and change with injuries in back-to-back seasons.

Contract Estimates

Walker is said to be looking for a four-year deal, but there are no dollar figures tied to that just yet. MLB Trade Rumors went with 2-years, $20 MM, and FanGraphs’ Crowdsourcing projected 3-years, $39 MM. Last year’s market saw just two non-first base infielders get multiyear deals: Sean Rodriguez (2-years, $11 MM), Luis Valbuena (2-years, $15 MM), and Justin Turner (4-years, $64 MM). If the market unfolds similarly, one has to imagine that he’d be closer to Turner than to Valbuena or Rodriguez. Given that and his injuries, I think the FanGraphs number is close to the mark.

Does He Make Sense for the Yankees?

Walker checks pretty much every box if the Yankees are looking for a veteran at second – he hits, he works the count, he hits for power, he’s a capable defender, he’s a switch-hitter, and he might have some defensive versatility. The injuries would need to be looked into thoroughly, and his struggles against lefties might mean that Torreyes plays more than we’d like – but I don’t think either is a dealbreaker.

The issue is money. Brian Cashman has $30+ MM to play with, which means that he could easily fit in this year, even with a $13 MM price tag – and I could even see next year working out, with some finagling. But adding a third year is undoubtedly out of the question. If he’s available for the MLBTR projection, I’d be all-in; if he won’t settle for anything less than three-years, I’d be out. And I’m confident that the Yankees will be, too.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Back-Up Catchers

(Norm Hall/Getty Images)
(Norm Hall/Getty Images)

The average major league catcher slashed .245/.315/.406 in 2017, good for an 89 wRC+ – and the average back-up catcher was much, much worse than that. And that puts Austin Romine‘s offense in an incredibly unflattering light, as he was the worst hitter among the 49 backstops that amassed 200 PA last season. The baseline is incredibly low, and he fell about as far beneath it as is possible (to be fair, he ranked 62nd among the 67 catchers that had at least 100 PA). And his defense doesn’t really make up for it, either.

As a result of this, the Yankees might just be in the market for a better back-up option behind the dish. Whether or not one is available on the free agent market is an intriguing question; particularly when Mike already wrote about Alex Avila. Given that he stands to make a fair bit of money, though, he does not seem like a terribly likely candidate to accept a back-up role. That leaves us with the following free agent catchers, listed along with their 2017 production (framing and blocking runs courtesy of Baseball Prospectus):

catchers

The pickings are rather slim, as one might expect given the value of a passable catcher. Only a few of these guys grade out as strong defenders across the board (the league-average CS% is around 27%), and Chris Iannetta was the only one to be an asset with the bat (though, Rene Rivera was above-average for the position). I’ll dig into each of the names a bit:

A.J. Ellis

Okay, to clarify, Ellis isn’t terribly interesting. However, he does seem like the exact sort of player that the Yankees would value, given his reputation as a clubhouse leader (lest we forget Clayton Kershaw’s reaction when he was dealt) and experience in big markets. Ellis is also 36, hasn’t hit well since 2015, and has never graded out well as a framer or a blocker. Hard pass.

Nick Hundley

Hundley has been an average-ish hitting catcher throughout his career, with a career slash line of .249/.300/.406 (89 wRC+). He’s also a subpar pitch-framer, grading out as well below-average in three of the last four years, and a middling blocker and thrower. He might be an upgrade over Romine with the bat, but defensively he’s not up to snuff – and I think the team would want a large upgrade in one aspect to move on from the status quo.

Chris Iannetta

Iannetta checks a great many boxes for the Yankees. He walks (career 13.6% walk rate) and hits for power (.176 ISO), and he was a strong pitch framer in 2017, with slightly below-average marks in blocking and the throwing game. His offense has been up and down throughout his career, but the patience and power are always there; but defense is another matter entirely. Consider his framing over the last three years, as per BP and StatCorner:

  • 2015: +13.1, +14.4
  • 2016: -13.8, -12.3
  • 2017: +6.1, +0.0

Publicly available catcher metrics are still a work in progress, but it’s strange to see a catcher bounce from elite to awful to average/above-average in a span of three years. That’s especially true with Iannetta, who vacillated between average and awful prior to 2015. If he is as good as last year’s numbers indicate on defense, he’s a massive upgrade over Romine; if he’s as bad as 2016, he’s not. I have faith in his bat, though.

Jose Lobaton

If you think last year’s framing numbers were an aberration, Lobaton is essentially a slightly better version of Romine, having been worth between 2.3 and 4.5 framing runs in his other major league seasons. Otherwise, he’s one of the few catchers that are worse.

Jonathan Lucroy

I have to imagine that Lucroy will get a starting gig somewhere, as he’s only a season removed from being a very good hitter (123 wRC+ in 544 PA in 2016) and a solid defender (4.0 framing runs, 1.8 blocking runs, 39% CS%). He graded out as absolutely horrendous on defense last year, though – and BP was far more generous than StatCorner, which had him at -29.2 framing runs. I would be happy to see the Yankees take a flier on Lucroy, given his high marks in the past (and his ability to play some first base) – but there are enough catching gigs around the league for him to wait for a better opportunity.

Miguel Montero

Montero appears to be in the decline phase of his career, at least as a hitter. 2017 was the worst offensive season of his career, and that came on the heels of another subpar season (82 wRC+). He also ruffled feathers this past summer, when he criticized Jake Arrieta (and the Cubs pitching staff as a whole) for slow delivery times. That earned him a DFA, and a trade to the Blue Jays, and makes one wonder if there were other behind the scenes issues. That factor may well make Montero a non-option for the Yankees; though, his left-handed pop and strong framing and blocking could mitigate that concern.

Rene Rivera

Mike summed up the appeal of Rivera in his off-season plan. He’s a good to great defender with a reputation for working well with pitchers, and he has a bit of pop in his bat, too. In short, he’s what the Yankees hope(d) Romine could become.

Carlos Ruiz

Scroll up and read my take on A.J. Ellis (which is kind of funny, as they were dealt for each other), and you’ll have a good idea of Ruiz’s potential appeal and clear-cut flaws.

Hector Sanchez

Sanchez is probably the worst all-around catcher on this list, and is included largely as a means to hammer home the scarcity of good options at this position. He doesn’t grade out well at anything, other than running into a few home runs over the last two years (he had a .212 ISO in 189 PA as a San Diego Padre, which is actually fairly impressive).

Geovany Soto

Soto missed the majority of 2017 due to elbow surgery, but is said to be ready to go for 2018. And, depending on his medicals, he could be an interesting target for a team willing to roll the dice. He has always been a good hitter for a catcher, with a career 102 wRC+, and his defense has long graded out as roughly average. The warning signs are obvious, in that he’ll be 35 in January and each of his last two seasons have been cut short by elbow injuries, but he has the makings of a more than competent back-up.

Chris Stewart

Stewart’s defense has slipped noticeably over the last two years, with his framing runs dropping precipitously as per BP and StatCorner. Given his own struggles with the bat, it’s likely that Romine is actually a better option than Stewart right now.

Contract Estimates

Lucroy is the only name of consequence on this list, and neither FanGraphs (3-years, $33 MM) nor MLB Trade Rumors (2-years, $24 MM) sees him as a tremendous bargain. Though, I suppose he would be a bargain at either price if he bounces back.

As for everyone else, I don’t really see an offer for more than a few million per year.

Do They Make Sense for the Yankees?

Lucroy is a pipe dream for the Yankees; even if he signs for peanuts, he’ll seek and find a starting role. With that being said, I think any of the following players – listed in order of preference – would be fine options to replace Austin Romine: Chris Iannetta, Rene Rivera. Iannetta would outhit him by a significant margin (and might be a better defender), and Rivera would just be better across the board.

That’s a short list, but the rest of these catchers all have a serious flaw that is not mitigated by a legitimate strength. I might be interested in some on a minor league deal (Soto comes to mind), but otherwise I’d stay the course with Romine. And I think the Yankees would, too.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Tony Watson

(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

It is almost impossible to discuss the Yankees quest to find a reliable left-handed reliever without resorting to hyperbole. The team seems to be perpetually in search of a left-handed specialist, outside of those few months when Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller occupied the same bullpen. Most of that stems from heavy regression from internal candidates – such as Chasen Shreve and Tommy Layne – and it has prevented the team from playing the match-ups in the middle innings over the last season and a half. And, with some options on the free agent market, it seems likely that the Yankees will be on the hunt for a bit of stability in the left-on-left role.

Mike wrote about Jake McGee, the best or second-best left-handed reliever available, last week. Today I’ll be digging into the other contender for that distinction – Tony Watson.

Recent Performance

Tony Watson became an absolute stud in 2013, just as the Pirates transitioned from semi-laughingstock to legitimate playoff contender. He maintained an excellent level of performance for three seasons, but has regressed a bit over the last two years. Check out his numbers over the last five years, for reference:

capture

There are certainly some disconcerting signs, the most notable of which is Watson’s home run rate. Going from three straight seasons of elite home run prevention to back-to-back years of average (or worse) rates isn’t great. Moreover, his strikeout rate also slipped to a career low, even as league-wide rates spiked. Those factors combined to make him less effective – albeit still good – against lefties; it limited his utility as an all-purpose reliever, though.

It is worth noting that Watson was dealt to the Dodgers at the trade deadline, and he looked much more like the pitcher he was the previous four years. His strikeout rate (+5.2 percentage points), groundball rate (+15.7 percentage points), home run rate (from 1.35 per 9 to 0.90), and LHH wOBA (from .316 to .279) all improved markedly, and he pitched very well in the playoffs.

The Stuff

Watson is a rare sort of reliever, in that he throws four distinct pitches – a four-seam fastball in the low-to-mid 90s, a sinker in that same range, a change-up in the upper 80s, and a mid-80s slider. His velocity has dipped since 2014, but has remained relatively steady these last three years. Take a look at his usage rates:

brooksbaseball-chart

The slider is Watson’s least-used pitch, and he still throws it between ten and fifteen percent of the time. One thing that stands out about this chart, particularly when you consider his improvements with the Dodgers, is his sinker usage. Take a look at 2017 as a whole:

brooksbaseball-chart-1

Watson went from essentially alternating between his four-seamer and sinker to featuring the latter, and it paid dividends. His strikeout rate jumped back into his career-norm range, and his groundball rate was a tick under 60% – and that’s an excellent combination. Whether or not that is a product of a small sample size or the Dodgers unlocking something in his sinker remains to be seen.

Injury History

It’s kind of remarkable how healthy Watson has been as a professional. He has made at least 67 appearances (including the minors) in each of the last seven seasons, and has never been on the major league disabled list. Watson did miss most of 2009 with inflammation in his left elbow, but he did not require surgery; his only other injury that I can find was when he had Tommy John surgery as a Junior at Nebraska.

Contract Estimates

Both MLB Trade Rumors and FanGraphs’ crowdsource predicted a two-year, $12 MM deal. That seems a bit light, given his long track record of success, “proven closer” status, and high-profile work with the Dodgers down the stretch and in the playoffs, and it therefore strikes me as incredibly reasonable. There are no comparables out there just yet, given how quiet this off-season has been (and the fact that Mike Minor may be starting for the Rangers), but most relievers of his ilk end up signing for three years and a higher AAV.

Does He Fit the Yankees?

The pre-2017 version and Dodgers version of Watson makes a great deal of sense for the Yankees, as a  left-handed reliever that shuts down lefties and is (usually more than) competent against righties. It’s difficult to fully ignore his first-half, though, as well as the trend that we can see between 2016 and 2017.

The Yankees, as an organization, seem to prefer to have a true left-handed specialist, and the aforementioned Shreve does not seem to be it. They also do not seem likely to sink money into a luxury item, given their payroll goals. Figuring out where Watson (or McGee) fits on that continuum is an open-ended question – but if he’s really going to sign for $6 MM a year, I could see him fitting into the team’s plans.

The Other Core Relievers [2017 Season Review]

Adam Warren. (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Adam Warren. (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Adam Warren

It may be an exaggeration to say that Adam Warren’s inclusion in the Aroldis Chapman deal was as exciting to Yankees fans as the hype around centerpiece Gleyber Torres a year and a half ago, but he was regarded as far more than a throw-in. Our own Mike Axisa was “stoked” to have him back, for example, and for good reason – Warren was a borderline stud reliever before being dealt to Chicago. To wit, he pitched to the following line out of the Yankees bullpen: 183 IP, 8.3 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 45.3 GB%, 3.05 ERA, 130 ERA+, 3.40 FIP. Warren was not that pitcher for the Cubs, but there was hope that a return to his old stomping grounds would cure whatever ailed him.

And it did – 30.1 IP and a 133 ERA+ later, and Warren was right back in the mix to be the Yankees fireman.

Warren entered the 2017 season in a fireman-esque role, and he did not disappoint. Six of his first seven outings saw him picking up four or more outs, and six of those seven games were also within three runs when he entered. And, in true fireman fashion, he entered games in the 4th, 5th, 6th (3 times), 7th, and 8th in those outings. Those seven appearances comprised the first month of the season, over which he tossed 13.1 IP of 0.68 ERA ball, with 13 strikeouts against 3 walks.

May was a different story, though. Warren blew three leads in twelve appearances, and generally struggled to put batters away. He was also shifted into a more defined role, settling in as the ‘7th inning guy;’ that coincided with Chad Green becoming an absolute monster in multi-inning stints, and Joe Girardi went with the hot hand in the fireman position. And so the bullpen deployment became a bit more rigid.

Warren settled down after Memorial Day, and the Yankees bullpen was firing on all cylinders. Unfortunately, Warren hit the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation on June 16, and would spend the next three weeks on the sidelines. He came back strong, though, returning on July 4 and reeling off a month and a half of awesomeness. Warren made 16 appearances from that date through August 16, pitching to the following line: 19.2 IP, 11 H, 4 BB, 19 K, 0.92 ERA.

The wheels fell off at that point, though, and he hit the DL with a balky back on September 6. There were rumblings that he’d miss the rest of the season, but he returned to throw a scoreless inning in the Yankees final game. He finished the season with a 2.35 ERA (193 ERA+), 8.5 K/9, and 2.4 BB/9 in 57.1 IP, and looked strong in the playoffs, to boot – Warren shutout the Astros in two appearances (3.1 IP) in the ALCS.

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Chasen Shreve

Calling Shreve a “core” reliever sounds strange, but that’s basically what he was in 2017. Granted, he was essentially the mop-up man – but he held onto that role for the vast majority of the season. Shreve made 44 appearances in 2017, and he entered 25 of those games with a lead or deficit of three or more runs; and ten of those appearances came with the Yankees leading by four or more runs, so he may be best described as their victory cigar.

Shreve, like Warren, was counted on to pitch more than one inning, and was rarely used in the prototypical LOOGY role. He was only called upon seven times to get out a tough lefty, and he was actually successful in six of opportunities. Despite Girardi’s justified misgivings about using him in tough spots, Shreve was quite good against lefties in 2017, holding them to a .161/.235/.262 slash line in 68 showdowns. Compare that to a .225/.338/.491 line against righties, and one can’t help but wonder if there’s a lefty specialist to be found.

As was the case in his first two seasons in pinstripes, Shreve had no trouble racking up whiffs. He struck out 11.5 batters per nine, and his 14.4% swinging strike rate was well above league-average. On the flip side of that, however, were his continued struggles with the long ball (1.6 HR/9 compounded by a lowly 37.4% groundball rate) and control (5.0 BB/9). He’s basically a three true outcomes pitcher, and that’s not someone that can be relied upon all that often.

That being said, those weaknesses did largely evaporate against same-handed batters. Shreve struck out 38.2% of lefties, walked just 8.8%, and allowed just one home run to the aforementioned 68 lefties that he faced. Those are excellent numbers, and he was fairly consistent against lefties throughout the year. That may not mean that he has shaken off the horror show that was 2016, when he allowed lefties to post a .437 wOBA – but I would be interested to see him get another shot at the role, as the Yankees perpetual search for a LOOGY wages on.

2018 Outlook

Warren seems a lock to return to the sixth/seventh inning role, barring a trade of Dellin Betances, Tommy Kahnle, or Aroldis Chapman. Well, that, or if Green actually ends up starting (which I don’t see happening). And the Yankees should be confident in his ability to fill any role, given that Warren has never disappointed in pinstripes.

As for Shreve, I’m not quite sure. The Yankees are loaded with potential relievers, and Shreve was an odd man out at the end of the regular season. A new coaching staff may be interested to see if he could be the lefty specialist, and I think he deserves that opportunity; but his ability to throw multiple innings and get out lefties may keep him in a more mop-up oriented role. And I don’t know how safe his spot on the roster is, either.

Houdini Returns [2017 Season Review]

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Nearly three years ago to the day, the Yankees signed Andrew Miller to a four-year, $36 MM deal, effectively (or so we thought) ending David Robertson‘s career in pinstripes. It was a sensible move, as the team stood to save $2.5 MM per year against what Robertson would end up signing for in Chicago, while also picking up a draft pick (which turned into Kyle Holder). It was an odd feeling nevertheless to see the heir to Mariano Rivera pack up and go – and it was an equally great feeling to see him back in the Bronx.

A New Fireman In Town

When Robertson was brought back into the fold, it was made abundantly clear that he would be utilized in whatever capacity the Yankees needed. The always-endearing Robertson said that he didn’t need a defined role out of the bullpen, and Joe Girardi utilized him as such. He entered his first game back in the 7th inning (striking out the side), and then pitched the eighth in back-to-back games. Robertson’s next two appearances came in the 9th in non-save situations, and then it was back to the 8th for a game. And then his next eight appearances started like this: 9th, 6th, 8th, 7th, 6th, 8th, 9th, 7th. Here’s the breakdown of Robertson’s regular season appearances with the Yankees, by the inning in which he entered:

  • 5th inning: 1
  • 6th inning: 3
  • 7th inning: 6
  • 8th inning: 14
  • 9th inning: 5
  • Extra innings: 1

Were it not for Dellin Betances‘ struggles, which necessitated Robertson becoming the steadying presence in the 8th, we may well have seen the numbers around that inning increase even further. And, more importantly, he thrived in the absence of a designated inning.

Pure Dominance

Take a moment to marvel at Robertson’s regular season line with the Yankees:

35 IP, 14 H, 12 BB, 51 K, 1.03 ERA, 442 ERA+, 2.10 FIP, 38.6 K%, 9.1 BB%, 54.4 GB%

Dominant doesn’t really begin to cover it, does it? This was Robertson at his absolute best, as he racked up whiffs, kept his walks at a more than manageable level, and kept the ball on the ground when hitters did manage to make contact. He didn’t allow a run over his final fifteen appearances (18 IP), either. This was a better version of the pitcher that earned an All-Star nod and down ballot Cy Young and MVP votes in 2011, and it was glorious.

It was also a slightly different version of Robertson. Consider his pitch selection over his ten-year career:

brooksbaseball-chart

Over the first nine-plus years of his career, between 65 and 80% of Robertson’s offerings were cutters. Upon returning to the Yankees, however, he settled into a 50/50 split (or thereabouts) between his cutter and his curveball – and it obviously paid huge dividends. The contrast grew even more stark in the playoffs, when his curveball became his go-to pitch:

brooksbaseball-chart-1

It will be interesting to see how his approach changes when the 2018 season rolls around.

The Playoffs

Robertson was one of the team’s many heroes in the Wild Card game, holding down the fort for 3.1 IP. He entered with the bases loaded in the third, and allowed one of the runners to score, but he was fantastic the rest of the way. He also gave us this immortal image, as we all felt Gary Sanchez‘s pain:

(Elsa/Getty Images)
(Elsa/Getty Images)

The rest of the postseason didn’t work out as well for Robertson, unfortunately. He blew a save in game two of the ALDS against the Indians, and was absolutely shelled by the Astros in game six of the ALCS. He did fine work in between, including a tremendous effort in the decisive game of the ALDS, and was far from the blame for the series loss as a whole (he didn’t take a loss or surrender a lead), but it was a disappointing end to an otherwise stellar reunion.

That being said, my lasting memories of season one back in pinstripes will be the dominance.

2018 Outlook

Robertson is under contract for $13 MM in 2018, the last year of his deal. The Yankees always have a lot of moving parts in the bullpen, so it remains to be seen how he will be deployed, but I don’t see him being traded. With Chad Green potentially earning a look in the rotation and Dellin Betances figuring things out, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if he opened the season as the set-up man.

The Other Excellent Rookie [2017 Season Review]

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The Yankees headed into Spring Training with the fifth starter role entirely up in the air (that’s true of the fourth spot, as well, but now is not the time to discuss how awesome it was that Luis Severino went from “competing for a spot” to “finalist for the Cy Young Award”). Brian Cashman specifically mentioned that Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, Adam Warren, and Jordan Montgomery were in the mix, and the first four came into the season with at least five big league starts under their belt. Montgomery was the youngest and the least experienced, but it seemed likely he’d get the call eventually. Instead, he latched onto that slot in the rotation, and never let go.

An Impressive Spring Training

Cashman and Co. were not lying when they said that the fifth starter’s role was very much up for grabs, and Montgomery seized the opportunity. He appeared in six games, starting two, and pitched to the following line: 19.2 IP, 16 H, 3 BB, 17 K, 1.2 GB/FB, 3.20 ERA. Green had a much shinier 1.50 ERA, but Montgomery was trusted to throw more innings, and had much better peripherals – and so the job was his.

There were, of course, two factors that gave Montgomery something of an edge; or, at the very least, helped to make up whatever ground he would’ve lost by being a rookie. The first is that Cessa, Green, Mitchell, and Warren all had experience pitching out of the bullpen, and profiled better in that role, given their stuff. And the second is rather simple – he’s a southpaw. When your home ballpark is Yankee Stadium, the more left-handed starters you can muster, the better. A strong Spring Training, a track record of success in the high minors, left-handedness, and the lack of a high-end reliever profile all worked together to push Montgomery into the rotation.

Arriving A Bit Earlier Than Expected

The Yankees were slated to use Montgomery for the first time on April 16, as that was the first time that a fifth starter was necessary. Plans changed, as they often do, and they elected to give CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka an extra day of rest by starting Montgomery on April 12. It’s a relatively minor difference, to be sure – but I’m not sure that they expected Montgomery to be there for the long-haul from day one(-ish).

Montgomery turned in a solid start in his major league debut against the Rays, going 4.2 IP and allowing 5 hits, 2 earned runs, and 2 walks, while striking out 7. You can read more about that start in Mike’s game recap, but the key takeaway was that Montgomery did everything the team could have reasonably expected of him, and looked good in doing so. Or, phrased differently, he pitched well-enough to make that fifth starter’s spot his to lose.

A Consistent Force At The Back Of The Rotation

Montgomery stuck in the Yankees rotation for the rest of the season, with a small asterisk. He was sent down to Triple-A in the dog days of Summer to mitigate his workload; he made one three-inning start there, on August 24, and was back in the show six days later. That jaunt to the minors was sandwiched in the midst of his worst stretch of the season, where he seemingly hit the rookie wall. Montgomery went 17 innings over four starts, allowing 18 hits, 12 earned runs (6.35 ERA), 10 walks, and five home runs. It wasn’t pretty.

Up to that point, Montgomery had made 22 starts, pitching to the following line: 121 IP, 110 H, 38 BB, 115 K, 3.94 ERA, 3.94 FIP. Those ERA and FIP numbers may not look all that impressive, but his 89 ERA- and 87 FIP- show that both were comfortably above-average. His 22.8% strikeout rate and 7.5% walk rate were above-average, as well.

And he rebounded nicely after his rough patch, too. He closed out the season with three strong starts, totaling 17.1 IP, 12 H, 3 BB, 14 K, 0 HR, and a 1.04 ERA. It was a great end to a very good season, and a comforting sign that he had straightened himself out a bit.

Surprisingly, Montgomery’s stuff didn’t really sag as the season progressed:

brooksbaseball-chart

All five of his pitches stayed within a range of +/- a MPH on the season as a whole, excepting October – which may simply be an outlier, given that it was just one start. That is likely a product of Montgomery being accustomed to heavier workloads in the minors, as he only took a jump of 24 IP from 2016 to 2017; and it’s a good sign.

Trusting His Stuff

Montgomery’s pitch selection was somewhat inconsistent throughout the season, and it will bear watching going forward. I first noticed this back in May, when he followed-up the worst start of the season with the best (to that point), at least. It essentially boiled down to slider usage – he threw 11 the first time around, and 29 the next time out, and it was unhittable. For better or worse, though, his usage rate on all of his pitches was all over the place:

brooksbaseball-chart-1

The best explanation for this may simply be that he didn’t like to use his slider and curveball in the same game, as the usage of those pitches is close to a mirror image. He had great success with both pitches, though, so being able to deploy both in the same outing with confidence could pay dividends.

The Best Rookie Pitcher In Baseball

Put all of that together, and Montgomery was at the top of the charts for rookie pitchers, with the following overall line – 155.1 IP, 22.2 K%, 7.9 BB%, 88 ERA-, 2.7 fWAR, 2.9 bWAR. He led all rookie pitchers in both fWAR and bWAR, and finished fourth in innings pitched. An argument can even be made that he was the best non-Aaron Judge rookie in the American League, given that he was tied with Matt Chapman for second in fWAR, and didn’t derive a great deal of his value from a half-season’s worth of defensive metrics.

Regardless, that’s a hell of a rookie season from someone that may’ve been fourth or fifth on the pre-spring depth chart for the fifth starter’s slot.

2018 Outlook

Montgomery has more than earned a spot in the Yankees rotation and, barring some unforeseen blockbuster deal, I don’t see him anywhere else in 2018.